As most of us no doubt know, Hanukkah (I use the NY Times’s spelling of it for sake of my spellchecker) is coming to a close. (No, not Thanksgivukkah–because I like Thanksgiving way too much to blend it in with anything else. And also, I love Thanksgiving, but eight days of turkey is almost too much for me.)
As we got ready to celebrate Hanukkah, on kind of a lark I started to read the laws for the holiday in the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh. (For rabbinical school, we were reading the laws on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the time, so I was already carrying the book around.) For those unfamiliar, it’s a Jewish legal code from the mid 19th century that is aimed at just the average (traditionally observant) Jew who wants to observe Jewish law and needs a relatively plain-language guide to doing so. It’s not generally used to reach new rulings as it’s not particularly detailed in terms of rationale and sources, but it’s pretty useful for day-to-day issues. For Hanukkah, it has information about things like what order to put the candles in and light them, what a Hanukkah menorah should look like and be made of, where it should be placed, how long the candles should burn, what blessings to say, who says them and when, etc. (It’s actually more involved than you would realize.)
Reading it, I realized that one of our menorahs was not, according to the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, kosher. That particular menorah has its candles in a circular shape–which is fine–but did not have all the candles except the ninth “helper” (shamash) at the same level. You see, the menorah goes up in sort of a spiral, so that each candle is higher than the next. According to the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, the eight candles of the menorah should all be level.
Now, this is an interesting dilemma for a humanistic Jew. Well, maybe not really, because we don’t recognize halakhah as binding for religious purposes. But we do recognize the cultural value of the observances, and that holds sway in deciding what we do.
So it still left me with the question: what to do? Should we use that circular menorah (which is beautiful), or do something else?
We ended up using a more traditional menorah. The circular one is part of the holiday display we’ve set up at my office, and it actually goes quite well there.
So, where am I going with all this?
Mrs. Secular Jew pointed something out to me that I hadn’t quite noticed myself. I’ve become more traditionally “observant” since coming to a place where I understand that I am–and have for a long time really been–a humanistic Jew. We light candles for Shabbat consistently when we never did before; my menorah decision was different than it would have been in the past (when I would likely have cared more that the circular menorah wasn’t kosher); and other smallish things have trended more traditional than they would have in the past. Some of this is modeling behavior or the result of spending more time thinking about Jewish things than I have for a little while–so, the natural consequence of embracing the Jewish part of things, particularly as a result of rabbinical study.
But that’s not all that’s happened. Coming to the understanding of where I am in terms of a Jewish identity–that I really don’t think halakhah has any divine component to it, that it’s not really binding–freed me up to make decisions without the “baggage” (sorry–it’s just the best term I’ve got) that comes from feeling like doing a thing means doing it right or just not bothering.
In a sense, this is the flip-side of the old saying, “If you’re going to sin, sin boldly.” Not being paralyzed by the necessity of doing it right, I find myself able to just do the thing. So, in talking about Hanukkah in the really limited way I can with our son, I don’t feel that I have to pitch only the “appropriate” message about it.
And so, given his communication difficulties, and the limited extent to which any nine year-old–of nearly any cognitive or communicative abilities–can wrap his head around such abstract notions, it was effective this year to explain only one thing about Hanukkah.
That Hanukkah is about freedom.
As the lights fade from the menorah on the last day of Hanukkah this year, a warm chag sameach to you.